By Lee H. Hamilton
Members of Congress are home now, campaigning for the upcoming elections. Their messages are all over the map, and for a good reason: they have very little to brag about.
The Congress that just recessed until after the elections makes the 80th—the one that Harry Truman blasted as “do-nothing”—look like a paragon of productivity. It didn’t pass an annual budget. It didn’t tackle immigration reform, climate change, tax reform, the minimum wage, or domestic surveillance. It passed fewer bills than any other Congress in 60 years.
Small wonder that voters are in a sour mood when it comes to Washington. They want to see our elected leaders tackling issues that confront the country. They want less partisanship. They don’t understand government’s frequent failures and crave more competence. On every front, the people they’ve elected have disappointed them. Yet voter outrage at Congress is not translating into a message of rejecting incumbents.
Given President Obama’s lack of popularity, there’s a general sense among members of the political class that Republicans have an edge in the election and may well take over the Senate. Yet even if the Senate majority changes hands, it will do so only narrowly. A party needs 60 votes there to accomplish much of anything, so whoever controls the Senate will be able to maneuver only on the margins; resolving tough issues head-on will be difficult, maybe impossible. The dysfunction and lack of productivity that have become defining characteristics of Congress in recent years are likely to continue.
This is ironic, because large amounts of money are being poured into the fall elections, especially in races for the Senate. You’d almost think transformational policies were at stake. Yet the attention on the Senate is probably misplaced. Polls are showing that a number of gubernatorial seats are likely to switch hands in both directions, and if anything this year’s 36 gubernatorial contests will have more of an impact on politics two years from now than what happens in the Senate.
In short, whatever happens on Election Day this year, it’s unlikely that much will change in its wake. This may hardly be the most important election of our lifetimes, but the business that Congress left unfinished is still waiting. The nation needs an elected leadership capable of rolling up its sleeves and meeting our challenges head-on right now, not a few years hence.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.